As life changes every day, we find ourselves in the midst of uncertainty. Kids tend to love their routines, especially those on the Autism Spectrum, so it’s high profile in my mind that I need to help my children through this. At 13, 9 and 9 now, Taz, Chip and Dale are at reasonable ages to explain things, however, there are some things they don’t understand, and this presents its own set of challenges.
Furthermore, plenty of people may be wondering how to deal with this when it comes to younger children, or non-verbal children. There is actually a recommended way of approaching such things in child Psychology, and I will explain that shortly, but first I will answer the common question of “Why tell them anything? Isn’t it best to protect them? Not say anything, so they don’t worry?”
The reason we don’t leave things unsaid when it comes to the mental health of children is because their imagination is very powerful, and much more frightening than reality. Kids will know something is up. They see the empty supermarket shelves. They also feel your anxiety. Not only are they likely to turn this into a catastrophic idea of what is happening with their powerful imagination, but as they tend to be self-centred in the way they think, it can even end up being an imagined cause for your anxiety that puts them in the centre. They might believe they behaved badly, or that they used too much toilet paper, or that an incidental lie they told caused something big to explode their world. This is why we do tell kids what’s happening when there is serious stuff going on. Furthermore, in the world of an Autie kid, surprises are NOT welcomed, so any preparation you can do is worthwhile.
This doesn’t mean that you pour out all of the information at your 2 yo of course, but if they ask about something, answer them in terms of how it relates to them, in their life, and in language and terms a 2yo will understand. What you tell kids will depend on their age, the breadth of their previous knowledge, and the extent of their curiosity. It will also need to be more complex according to age, so utilise tools for teaching if they are unsure about something.
If your child understands the context of illness, that helps your story for them, but if they don’t, you can demystify things by teaching them. Google search for photos of things they haven’t seen before, but might see as a result of the worldwide virus. If they are asthmatic, talk to them about any experiences they have had with masks before, such as the nebuliser. Answer their questions, and help them turn concerns into answers. Of course, we don’t want to paint a depressing and frightening picture of everyone in hospital on ventilators, so answer concerns, teach them about things they might come across and do so in a calm manner. You can also play with them. Play is a really common coping style for children, as they will repeatedly play out scenarios that worry them, attempting to find different ways to resolve a favourable outcome. Know that this is NOT a negative thing. Playing things out like this empowers children, as they brainstorm ideas for how to cope. Knowing there are potential answers can help to calm their fears.
It’s reasonably likely that the second born of twins will have some respiratory issues, thus, I taught both twins about hospital oxygen masks including the long tube that carried oxygen from the connection in the hospital. Those things are ordinarily thrown out after use, so opt to keep them if you can, as your children can access it then for play. My kids have one in their costumes box. They also have a face mask from the dentist and a hospital cap, which for me was red. This gave them exposure to these things, so if we needed to use them, they wouldn’t be things they’ve never seen before. We also showed them through an ambulance, introduced them to police, took them to visit the fire station, and educated them about emergency services as they grew. This turned out to be VERY useful, as we had a cluster of ambulance visits for various reasons, and the children were familiar with so many aspects of them that they remained much more calm.
They all know about the scary virus. They know it’s name, and that people have died. I didn’t tell them these things, but as they get older I can control their knowledge base less, but for 3 pretty anxious children, they are fairly calm. It won’t be a surprise to them if we need to isolate. Social distance is a familiar concept, and while Dale asks in frustration when things will be going like normal again, we tell him honestly that we don’t know.
Dale doesn’t always understand. He often asks over and over again why something isn’t the way he wants it to be. I know this will cause problems as we run out of BBQ shapes and beef two minute noodles. I think he has been saving them though, because he has seen the empty shelves at the supermarket. If you have a child who struggles to understand, try to meet them where there communication is best. Knowing that Dale takes in visual information means that showing him empty shelves, or pictures of them, helps him understand. If your child is non-verbal, this sort of visual information could help then, but keep in mind that not speaking doesn’t assume a lack of understanding. You know your child better than anyone, so look for ways to communicate to them, and remember that their stress responses, such as stimming, avoidance, excessive vocalisations or whatever they do to reduce their own stress, are all things they are doing to sooth themselves. Their desire to sooth themselves is more powerful than social expectation, and this will actually help them cope, as you put on your brave face whenever it’s required, they self-soothe naturally whenever they need to. This is a good thing. It helps them regulate their emotions and stay calm.
Remember to take care of yourself too, as your emotions and even unconscious reactions will be felt by your children. Take a leaf out of the Autie tree and self soothe whenever you need it. Know that your children are watching you too, so you are teaching them how to cope by example.
There are other things you can do for your kids during this difficult time. They want nothing more than to be with you, so use that time you’re not commuting to be with them. Maybe you could go for a walk, after all, sun and fresh air are good for you all. It might be tough for the children to learn how to give you time when you’re working at home, but that too is a learning exercise. They will get to see what you do, and how much concentration it takes. This teaches them what work is. Time at home, without the usual extra curricular activities could help them to find things to do around the house. Of course a bit of extra screen time is likely, but there are also board games, musical instruments, creative arts, and many other time-hungry pursuits that we often don’t get to.
You can also take the time to support friends and neighbours, looking out for anyone who is vulnerable and alone. It’s a good way to show our children how important social contact is. My children also love me to tell stories, and they also love to tell me stories. Storytelling is such fun, and can be a bit of a dying art in our culture. You can rejuvenate that, and get to know your children so much by exploring their unleashed imagination. So while the world outside gets further apart, our families have a chance to get closer. I look forward to that opportunity in my family. I hope you are able to embrace that too.
How have you told your children about the changes to their lives with Coronavirus?
How do you plan to create something good for your children out of this difficult time?
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Please be respectful of others at all times. We are all on different journeys.
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